COVID-19: on the epistemic condition
Indigenous cosmologies have always argued that we must treat the world as an interconnected, living organism with supreme complexity, fragile resilience and indeed mystique.
A few days ago, my friend Cosmin Costinas sent me a paragraph on Facebook and asked me “guess who wrote this?”, probably because I recently gave myself the task of translating a rather exotic passage by two virologists – Dr. Kwok-Yung Yuen and Dr. David Lung from Hong Kong University (Dr. Yuen is a leading virologist, often referred to as the Hong Kong Zhong Nanshan, or the Hong Kong Christian Drosten, depending on whom you are familiar with). They wrote a text for the influential newspaper Ming Pao, in which they claim: "The real source of this viral poison [the coronavirus] are the degenerate customs and inferior root stock of the Chinese people.”
The paragraph went as follows:
For example, the initial fulcrum of the current epidemic is very probably to be found in the markets of Wuhan province. Chinese markets are known for their dangerous dirtiness, and for their irrepressible taste for the open-air sale of all kinds of living animals, stacked on top of one another. Whence the fact that at a certain moment the virus found itself present, in an animal form itself inherited from bats, in a very dense popular milieu, and in conditions of rudimentary hygiene.
As I have been living for the past decade in the bubble of the postcolonial-theory-savvy progressive of the western left, I tricked myself into disbelieving that such blatantly racist and colonialist writing could still be possible.
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Since this coincided with Donald Trump starting to refer to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” or even “Kung Flu” – a rare moment of linguistic talent albeit in his own language on the part of the US president – I didn’t bother to guess or check who wrote the passage Cosmin had sent me and replied: “hahahaha every bad person could have said this by now.”
Only some hours later, when another Facebook friend posted a link to the Verso blog article did I realise that the text was written by one of the most well-known thinkers of our time – so eminent in fact, that the Chinese translation of the text was ready overnight and in circulation one day after. It was March 23 when the text ‘On the Epidemic Condition’ by Alain Badiou was published on the Verso blog, exactly two months after the total lock-down of the city of Wuhan and pretty much the whole country.
It was March 23 when the text ‘On the Epidemic Condition’ by Alain Badiou was published on the Verso blog.
As a hats off to the Wuhan people and the thousands of medical workers, construction workers, logistic workers, and others who found themselves in the city, Badiou wrote the paragraph that my friend brought to my attention.
The city of Wuhan
In the Chinese version, the translator kindly corrected Monsieur Badiou’s mistake of calling Wuhan a province – something a translator normally would not do. This “unheard of” city, perhaps unknown to Monsieur Badiou, is not unknown to a lot of people, including those who died and those who have loved ones, family members, friends, colleagues, and simply co-inhabitants or fellow human beings who died due to the new coronavirus (Covid-19) that first broke out there. This mistake is as minor as it is telling, not only because Joe Biden also couldn’t be bothered to learn the city’s name.
As a Maoist, Monsieur Badiou should be expected to know Chinese geography slightly better. Wuhan is after all not a small city but one that played a significant role in modern Chinese history, where the anti-Qing dynastic Wucang Uprising (1911) that initiated the fundamental change of Chinese political system took place. Mao was exactly 18 years old that year and was profoundly influenced by the Xinhai Revolution that the Wucang Uprising started.
And even if Monsieur Badiou was only concerned with “bare theory,” couldn’t he be bothered to read some news with which, for at least two months, the city of Wuhan in Hubei province has gone viral? Haven’t articles about the virus and therefore Wuhan inundated the social media that he so detests? How come one of the best minds of our time and the left couldn’t have shown the slightest sympathy towards the sufferings of Wuhan people, especially the socially and economically underprivileged – the migrant worker who found a job in the wet market because there were no other more “hygienic” jobs available for her?
Shouldn’t he suspect that the Chinese, besides their irrepressible taste for the open-air sale of living animals, are also capable of thinking and producing, perhaps, epistemologically, different forms of knowledge to deal with the virus that perhaps could enable “even European countries” to manage it more promptly? Hasn’t he noticed that it was the migrant workers – delivery men and women – who sustained the life of millions of people in that completely locked-down city? And what about South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, their different and innovative ways of dealing with the virus? But no, looking at nowhere, our pundit resorts to Reason, to Cartesian Reason.
The paragraph quoted above, infused with inaccuracy and exoticism to say the least – in fact exactly the kind of “racist fables online” he rightly criticizes in the paragraph that immediately follows –, is part of the “Cartesian” analysis that at this moment Monsieur Badiou found most useful to foreground in order to address the challenges the pandemic poses. Our philosopher observes that “the intrinsic activity of Reason” has been dissipated by social media, which accordingly has obliged “subjects to return to those sad effects – mysticism, fabulation, prayer, prophecy and malediction.”
The world is again divided into Reason and the irrational, and in Monsieur Badiou’s evaluation: the “ancient” and the “modern.” Cartesian man sits with the capitalized Reason to cogitare why “Even European countries are not managing promptly to adjust their policies in the face of the virus.” The Cartesian? That which cuts a strict separation between “nature” and “society”, and the other eurocentric dualisms that have sponsored colonialism and capitalist exploitation of “nature” – including the non-western natives as raw materials or raw labourers befitting the project of capitalist progress, and the supremacy of eurocentric Reason?
No, Cartesian “simple ideas” won’t solve the problem. If we are to understand Covid-19 as arising from a complex, planetarily entangled, deep ecological crisis caused and exacerbated by colonial capitalism, Cartesian Reason lies at its very epistemic center: not only as the philosophical groundwork for colonialism and capitalism, but also as embodied in the very understanding of Cartesian man whose metonymy insists on the West as impenetrable, impenetrable not only to any virus of “the Other” (the Chinese virus, the Wuhan flu) but also to ideas. Ian Johnson’s question: “Why did so many countries watch the epidemic unfold for weeks as though it was none of their concern?” might lie in that small word: “even.” This false idea of impenetrability and Eurocentric arrogance have squandered the time the Euro-American “Other” bought for them.
This false idea of impenetrability and Eurocentric arrogance have squandered the time the Euro-American “Other” bought for them.
The wet market
One central point of contestation seems to be the “wet market” which our philosopher tellingly relegates to the realm of “the archaic.” In a passage where he discusses the so called “point of articulation between natural and social determinations,” China becomes subjected to the most bare form of colonial observation: a “missing-link” of sorts, between archaic/savage/natural-determinations and modern/civilized/social-determinations:
China is thus a site in which one can observe the link – first for an archaic reason, then a modern one – between a nature-society intersection in ill-kept markets that followed older customs, on the one hand, and a planetary diffusion of this point of origin borne by the capitalist world market and its reliance on rapid and incessant mobility, on the other.
I grew up with those wet markets and it never occured to me that I was living in some temporal residue of archaic savagery, until I observed closely the passage above. When I was a teenager, my mom owned a small eatery. She would go everyday to the local market to buy vegetables and meat. I would go with her from time to time, and I hated the smell of the market, that mixture of chicken shit and rotten fish. Those were hard times, especially in winter. Those red hands of the vendors for many years lingered in my memory, reminding me of the struggle and hardship of the working people as I got used to Europe’s glossy, sanitized, sexily lit supermarkets, also to be found in today’s major cities in China.
The existence of those “conditions of rudimentary hygiene” of these markets is not because of some “irrepressible taste” or “older custom.” It is first and foremost an economic condition, a dire economic condition at the center – not periphery of global capitalism. Wuhan is one of the “newly discovered” innerlands of the global production chain as the Chinese coasts have become more expensive. My own city, which is even smaller and historically less significant than Wuhan, has become in recent years one of these new territories of global capitalism. Major digital companies no less than Apple, Huawei and the like have recently moved to glossy, sanitized, and sexily lit office buildings in this unknown mountain capital of one of the poorest provinces of China. Big Data they call it, the most cutting-edge development of Reason. Global capitalism has morbidly connected the Huanan wetmarket to the Wall Street stockmarket. So don’t be surprised if a virus that emerges from those “unknown” cities and regions becomes a global pandemic in the near future.
Bad news. This is not a challenge to “science” and “reason” alone. Yes, modern medicine and in fact big data (as it is seen in East Asia) are at the forefront of confronting the current pandemic. But if we are to understand what went wrong and therefore be prepared to do what could be right, this is then not only an epidemic condition but also more importantly an epistemic challenge.
To see the epidemic – now pandemic – as “rendered complex by the fact that it is always a point of articulation between natural and social determinations” is a Cartesian curse rather than cure. These two so called “determinations” are always articulated, inseparable, and mutually infectious – lest we forget that climate change, a natural phenomenon, is first and foremost a human-made one, to the extent that some thinkers have enthroned the anthropos in the new geological era known as the anthropocene.
And to be prepared for the long term, besides a Marxist critique of global capitalism and ecological devastation of the planet, may we retrieve a little from this arrogant Reason; may we be wary of simple ideas, of seemingly hygienic plastic packages of slaughtered mass-produced animals ordered nicely in temporary quarantine in aseptic refrigerators; may we be reminded, several stanzas before “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9) that Monsieur Badiou invoked, in Ecclesiastes 1:4 “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.” Neither prayer nor reason alone can prepare us for the worse to come.
Luckily, besides the “Cartesian simple ideas,” humanity has a huge reservoir of rich imaginations and philosophies, especially those epistemologies that have long been deemed un-scientific by Reason: indigenous cosmologies have always argued that we must understand and treat the world as an interconnected, living organism with supreme complexity, fragile resilience and indeed mystique.
Luckily, there is social media, through which people organize themselves beyond the extremely impoverished imagination of the state – that is still relying on the myth of the Nation State with its murderous border; through which those who have been brought voluntarily or coercively far away from home could get connected with their loved ones.
So let us not lose our commitment to diversity and multiplicity when facing a planetary emergency like Covid-19. Let us not consent to a single narrative and simple solution. While we need to keep our hands clean for the time being, may we, in infectious times, be epistemically unhygienic.
1. I quote this English translation from Jon Solomon who wrote in a petition an elaborate critique of the colonial racism that the two virologists have perpetuated.
2. Alain Badiou “On the Epidemic Situation” (23 March 2020)
3. The French version of text, presumably original, was published three days later than the English one translated by Alberto Toscano on 26 March 2020 on Quartier Général, where the sensational descriptions such as “dangerous dirtiness and irrepressible taste” are not found, instead a temporal marker “encore aujourd'hui [still today]” suggests similar prejudice: “Les marchés chinois sont encore aujourd’hui connus pour ce qui s’y trouve exposé, notamment leur goût de la vente en plein air de toutes sortes d’animaux vivants entassés.” Alain Badiou “Sur la situation épidémique” (26 March 2020)
4. Vice President of the US Joe Biden called the Covid-19 “the Luhan Virus” on 28 March.
5. Alain Badiou “On the Epidemic Situation” (23 March 2020)
6. Alain Badiou “On the Epidemic Situation” (23 March 2020)
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